When GM put a small-block V8 in its compact pickups
There are so many examples where GM is doing something great. Unfortunately, the automaker often removes these good ideas as quickly as they were introduced, leaving everyone perplexed. It happened to the Chevy Colorado and the GMC Canyon: For a few years, GM dropped a small-block V8 in its compact pickup, giving fans a sporty little hot-rod truck. Then GM ripped it off.
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It’s 2009. It’s been a pretty turbulent time for GM and for the rest of the world. The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, but GM declared bankruptcy that same month. With $82 billion in assets and $173 billion in liabilities, it was one of the biggest bankruptcies in US history. Although it was a dark time for the automaker, that didn’t stop GM engineers from developing some pretty good stuff.
By the time GM filed for bankruptcy, the GMT355 platform had been on sale for a few years. The truck was sold as the Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon, and Isuzu i-Series in the United States, and offered worldwide under various GM nameplates. For the most part, nothing was particularly special about these trucks, which battled against two highly regarded competitors, the Ford Ranger and the Toyota Tacoma. But then something changed.
Ever since the days of the first Chevy S-10, people wanted GM to drop a small-block V8 in the company’s compact pickup trucks. (In reality, there was a spare company it would do exactly this engine swap on your S-10.) The biggest engine you could get in a first-gen Canyon or Colorado was a 3.5 or 3.7-liter inline-5 (a very unique engine for the segment) with a power range of 220 to 242 hp. But you weren’t going to win any red light races.
After Toyota introduced the Tacoma X-Runner, a sports car disguised as a pick-up, GM buyers really wanted their own compact, muscular truck. So GM delivered.
For the 2009 model year, GM introduced a 5.3-liter small-block V8 in the Colorado, Canyon and Hummer H3T Alpha, which used a modified GMT355 platform. While some people might have hoped for a short-cab body and a manual transmission, you could only get the V8 on extended-cab or crew-cab models, and the V8 – which produced 300 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. – could only be paired with a relatively old four-speed car.
You can tell V8 models from regular Colorado/Canyons by a small V8 badge on the front fenders, body-color bumpers, unique 18-inch wheels, and special bucket seats. It wasn’t just the regular pickup with a bigger engine added, though. GM actually tried to make a sporty machine out of the V8 twins. V8-equipped Colorado/Canyons received the ZQ8 Sport Suspension Package (which lowered the ride height by an inch), a quicker steering ratio, and 235/50 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires on 18 inch rims.
The result was a package that actually worked. Engine trend highlighted the impressive power-to-weight ratio. “In this case, it’s 13.6 lb/hp, which is almost as good as an Acura TL or a John Cooper Works Mini Clubman,” said the magazine’s periodic review. And the extra power from the V8 slashed the truck’s 0-60 mph time by two seconds compared to the five-cylinder: it took just 6.7 seconds to do the sprint. The sport suspension also gave it impressive skid numbers, pulling 0.61g, as good as a Mazda 3 or an Acura TSX at the time.
But it wasn’t all good news. The interior was, frankly, terrible, covered in the hard plastics that plagued GM products of the day. And it was Spartan. Engine trend pointed out that there was no option for navigation and no auxiliary input for an iPod or other music player. Car and driver called the interior “rental car” and was one of the reasons the truck finished last out of five in a comparison test. “Hard, cheap plastic is as common in the Chevy as it is in the toy section of the local dollar store,” Car and driver said.
The biggest problem with these trucks, however, was the price. Let’s take the more popular Colorado as an example. To get the V8, you had to specify the extended cab or crew cab configuration. The V8 required you to order the top-end 3LT version, which started at $23,330. From there, you had to add the mandatory ZQ8 package at $3,935. If you added an extra $1,395 for the latest options, like a sunroof, locking differential, and side curtain airbags, you were sitting at around $30,000 for this truck. This was the base-to-midsize Silverado price in 2009. While a V8 in this size truck looks attractive, it loses its appeal when you can get a much more capable and roomy truck for about the same price.
While I always thought the Colorado/Canyon V8 was only offered in 2009. While researching this article, I was surprised to find that the little-to block was offered until 2012. In fact, two different versions of the small-to block were used in the Canyon and Colorado. For more information, I contacted GM’s worldwide chief engineer for the small-block V8, Jordan Lee. He explained details to me that I had never heard before:
The 5.3L V8 was used in the first Gen Colorado/Canyon from 2009 to 2012, 4 model years. The 2009 model used the LH8 engine but was replaced by the LH9 engine in 2010. The LH9 was identical to the LH8 except the LH9 implemented a camshaft phaser for variable valve timing. This helped emissions as well as ride quality. The LH9 was used in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 model years.
The first-generation Colorado/Canyon ended up being the only time GM offered a V8 in the smallest truck in its portfolio. While the current generation Colorado/Canyon is a great truck, and the next 2023 model promises to be even better, it would have been nice to have had an eight-cylinder send-off ahead of our inevitable future EV. When GM’s pickup line goes all-electric, I expect values for the short-lived Canyon and Colorado V8s to skyrocket.